When revenue-hungry airlines play “chicken” with passengers

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Here’s a decision most of us will have to make the next time we fly: Should you splurge for a “premium” seat in economy class — an aisle or a window seat — or leave it to chance, and possibly end up in a middle seat?

It happened to Fred Thompson on a recent Delta Air Lines flight from New York to Detroit. “The Delta website would not let me choose a seat when I booked the ticket four weeks early,” he says. “The day before my flight, I still could not pick a seat. All the economy seats were taken and the only available seats were fee-based with prices ranging from $9 to $29.”

Thomson believed Delta was playing a game of chicken. You know, that’s where two motorists drive towards each other on a collision course, and one has to swerve or both of them will crash. The first to move — the “chicken” — loses.

And Thomson didn’t want to swerve by giving in to Delta’s offer of selling him a seat he’d already bought. That’s because he suspected it would eventually offer him the seat for free.

He was right.

“When I checked in, I was given a premium seat,” he says.

This game is taking place with greater frequency, as airlines try to monetize things that used to be given to passengers as part of their ticket. These extras, from early-boarding privileges to luggage fees to premium seats, can add millions of dollars of revenue to an airline’s coffers.

But not if passengers refuse to play the game.

For example, if all of the travelers on Thomson’s flight had refused to pay for “premium” seat assignments, then Delta would have had no choice but to give some of them these better seats at no extra charge. If no one ponies up more for “early boarding” privileges, then no one boards early — except the usual suspects, like elites and folks with disabilities — and thus, early boarding has no point.

Or take checked luggage, for which all but two major airlines now charge extra. Instead of shelling out more and checking the bag (and possibly having it lost by the airline) in-the-know passengers are hauling their belongings to the gate. There, they figure, the airline will have no choice but to gate-check their suitcase for free if it can’t fit on the plane.

That can be problematic. When a flight attendant doesn’t flag an XL bag, it becomes a giant obstacle to other passengers, slows down the boarding process and leads to altercations between travelers and crewmembers.

Of course, air travel shouldn’t be a game. A ticket should include a bare minimum of an assigned seat and the ability to check one bag (and yes, I realize Southwest Airlines doesn’t have assigned seating and gives you a “free” checked bag, but I’m on a roll here, so don’t interrupt me). My point is, this little airline scheme may be boosting short-term earnings, but it is also needlessly raising our blood pressure.

Consider what happened to Donna Ullner when she tried to buy tickets for her daughter and grandson through Allegiant Airlines. The base fare to fly from Lexington, Ky., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., came to $372. Federal tax? Another $27.

“Then there was a segment fee of $14, a security fee of $10, and on the seat assignment, I had a choice of $15.99 a seat per segment or $9.99 per segment or nothing with no seat assignment.”

After she paid $39 for seat assignments, Allegiant added a “convenience fee” of $46. Then a “TripFlex” fee of $46, which would have allowed her to cancel the tickets if she had to. Total fare: $568 — and that’s before Allegiant’s luggage fee ($29 per item, if you prepaid).

“Enough is enough,” she says. “This airline is insane.”

(Photo: hyper7pro/Flickr)

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